Although DaVinci is a noble name for any horse, the name Dynamite would have been more accurate for my volatile and explosive pinto. When we first brought him home, just a few seconds of eye contact would set him off and I was left in a cloud of dust with only a trail of loose stool leading me to his whereabouts.
Later as his confidence grew, I could lead him around the neighborhood as long as I had his target stick, aka security blanket. Whenever he got scared he’d nervously search for the stick and touch it, receiving a click and food reinforcer. Often he didn’t want the food. Just his muzzle touching the spongy end of the stick was enough of a reward and a way to ground him. If he got really scared he’d assume the crab position, where all four legs would splay out in bizarre crouch as if we were experiencing an earthquake. I guess he figured the wider his stance the more stable he’d be. If I were into extreme sports this would have been the time to hop on his back as he wasn’t standing much taller than a St. Bernard.
For three years, I never, ever pushed beyond what I thought he could handle. Well, one time, I did when I completely blew his trust with the fly spray incident, but even then I stopped before we both reached meltdown. For three years I’ve carried a nagging fear revolving around these questions:
- What would happen if he really exploded?
- Would he flip over?
- Would he jump on me?
The veterinarian that came to pull DaVinci’s coggins definitely felt the “Jump on me” question had a good chance of being answered.
In the past six months with DaVinci, I’ve experienced some of the most rewarding moments with any horse. He’s literally transforming before my eyes into, well, an almost-normal horse. The moments where he drops his head, heaves a deep sigh and softly places his forehead into my arms, it’s an almost palpable moment where he’s saying I’m getting there. After a few seconds of appreciating his offer, my mind of course, say’s “You’ll have arrived when you let me fly spray you!”
I get the feeling that in DaVinci’s world, the bottle of fly spray is the equivalent of Satan in a bottle. The hissing and gurgling and spraying never ceases to send him over the edge. I’ve actually been able to spray a cloth with fly spray (while he watches) and then run the cloth over his body. This is huge for us. Number one, the scent of sulfur, I mean fly spray, usually would send him packing. Two, he’s letting me touch him with something that has something on it.
A few hot, hellacious days ago, something possessed me. I wanted to see what would happen if I pushed DaVinci beyond his comfort zone. Up until this point, with the exception of the earlier incident, I’ve created a relationship with him based solely on positive reinforcement. No punishment, no negative reinforcement. For three years he’s been basically unhaltered, working with me at liberty. I even trim his hooves while he’s unhaltered and unrestrained.
The only caveat with that is, normal horsemanship requires a horse to be restrained. I figured he needs to learn that being restrained doesn’t have to be painful. So I put his halter on him with a long lead and proceeded to show him that sunscreen being placed on his muzzle won’t kill him. We’ve worked with this before, allowing him to smell the baby sunscreen, touch the bottle etc, but I had never been able to actually place it on him because he’d run away. This time I decided, no running.
I placed the sunscreen in my hand and lifted it to his muzzle. With his head high, eyes wide, he began to back away, but he came to the end of the lead and stopped. I attempted again, and he backed, so while he was backing, I walked with him and smeared a little sunscreen on his cute pink muzzle. He lifted his head, I expected a rear, and then he stopped. I kept reciting, with a smile in my voice, “You’re like a baby at the beach.” I massaged his muzzle and soon his eyes drooped with half lids. He liked it. He didn’t like the initial impact of the goo on his face, but afterwards, he appeared to be enjoying himself.
Moral of that story, I pushed him and he was fine. Actually better than fine. So the next day I was going to try my luck with Satan in a bottle. I was prepared to spend all day showing him that fly spray does not hurt, does not burn, nor does it send you to hell.
Last year he learned to enjoy the blast of a hose with a pressure nozzle. He loves to stick his nose in the spray and drink the water. The sound of the pressure hose is, in my opinion much louder and forceful than a fly sprayer could ever dream of being. So I decided to compare and contrast. I filled a spray bottle full of water and led him to the pressure hose. I sprayed him with the hose, set it down, then I picked up the spray bottle. I then ‘tried’ to spray him. Important note, I was spraying very lightly to minimize the sound of the hiss.
Again, I think he saw himself face to face with pure evil. His eyes got all googly and he began his turbo back up. He forgot that I had the lead rope in my hand. He came to the end of the lead, and I stayed with him, following him with the spray bottle, and yes, I was squirting it. When he stopped backing, I stopped, and took a break and we went back to the pressure hose. We repeated a few times until he let me spray his muzzle with the spray bottle of water.
It seems for DaVinci, if he can face something head on, directly, he’s much more confident. When his teeth were floated, as long as the dentist stayed directly in front of him, he was fine. The moment he tried to pat him on the side of the neck he was airborne.
I eventually abandoned the pressure hose and focused only on the spray bottle. I was so fascinated that he was fine with me standing directly in front of him squirting his muzzle. I began to squirt his chest. This was scary for him and he began to back and back and back, so I stayed with him.
At times I saw he was going to lose it, so I let him do some self-lunging, where I offered him the space to run around me. After a few laps he decided it was too much work and he looked at me. We tried again. We repeated the same backing up dance combined with lunging and, after about five reps, he stood quietly to be sprayed in the chest.
After three years of dreaming of fly spraying him, it finally came true. Ultimately I wished I could have sprayed him at liberty, but I think the restraint had its place for increasing confidence for both of us. I got to see that DaVinci didn’t freak out when he was pushed with something very frightening. He got to see that although I used pressure, I didn’t hurt him. The difference in his temperament afterward was dramatic. It seemed like he acted so much more confident, like we were war buddies and survived a traumatic event together and there was nothing left to fear.
Although I used pressure through restraint, I think it served a purpose. It brought him to a place where he couldn’t use his usual avoidance tactic of running. I wanted to see if he’d pull out a complete melt down, but he didn’t. Because he was restrained, it made him face his fear. During this time, I did allow him to move his feet, but he could never completely escape me or the spray bottle.
I think this encounter falls into the 95% positive reinforcement and 5% negative reinforcement guideline. Throughout the day I see my horses spending over 95% of the time in a state of moving towards something that feels good. The other 5% or less, they’re moving away from something that doesn’t feel good, and usually that’s Romeo’s back feet, or Juliet’s snarling teeth.
For three years, I used every method of positive reinforcement I could with DaVinci. When it came time to pull out a little pressure, we both were ready. I do believe there is a place for pressure, but it’s a whole lot more digestible from the horse’s point of view if it’s served with a heaping plate of something that tastes and feels great.
Oh, and I forgot to add, the folks that came to see us after meeting DaVinci about two and half years ago when we first got him told me that they thought he had improved 150%.
There’ve been so many times when I thought DaVinci was beyond repair. A breakthrough like this, albeit a very slow motion breakthrough, shows me that persistence is a beautiful thing, as it’s given me a surge of hope. Courtesy of this crazy horse, I find myself looking at all the seemingly irrepairable areas in my life and I can’t help but smile. I’m finally understanding what it means to say, things are not always what they seem. Case in point, it’s a horse that showed me this!